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Kona Mom Teaches Daughters Life Lessons Through Recycling – 1 Can and Bottle at a Time

By Tom Hasslinger
January 29, 2022, 12:00 PM HST
* Updated January 29, 10:54 AM
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Cater shows off the money she earned recycling with her grandfather, Dan Ostrander, in Chico, California. In the main photo, Grace shows a plastic bottle she found while golfing with her family recently. PC: Shea Cochran

Shea Cochran is like a lot of mothers in that she tries to impart on her children some of the valuable principals of life, just as her parents taught her.

Exercising and sunshine feel good, giving feels even better, hard work gets you far, and leaving a place cleaner than you found it feels as rewarding as them all.

And the method the Kailua-Kona mother of two young girls uses to implement such principals is done through recycling, one piece of plastic or aluminum at a time.

“It sounds maybe like a strange family tradition,” Shea said recently. “But I think it really helps with the concept of money, for them to work, and for them to understand different points, which I think are important.”

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Those points are the points listed above, and they’re sinking in for Grace Lee, 5, who selected to give 10% of the money she raises recycling to a homeless man who spends time in the neighborhood of her school, AlaKai Academy. For Carter, 7, always the animal lover, it was a no-brainer to choose the Hawai‘i Island Humane Society as her recipient. Now, each time the family drops the donation money off, they make a day of it, looking at the dogs.

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It can seem like a strange family tradition  – the state’s HI-5 deposit program pays 5 cents back for redeemed cans and bottles – because the Cochrans rarely come across other ‘ohana who put as much coordination into it. 

Not that they talk about it that much: But should it come up in casual conversation, well, it can be easy to determine the other party’s level of devotion.

“I haven’t found anyone else who has really carried through with it,” Shea said.

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But the dedication to recycling came to Shea through her upbringing.

Shea’s father, Dan Ostrander, taught Shea the practice when she was growing up in Chico, California as a lesson in the value of earning and saving one’s own money. Her father worked in construction and would take Shea to his worksites, where cans and bottles littered the fields. (California began its redemption program in 1989, Hawaii did so in 2005). With it, her father added the caveat that if Shea would deposit her earnings into a bank account, he would double the amount. The only rule was, once she deposited it, she couldn’t withdraw it.

“It’s how I started to understand the concept of interest,” she said.

And the value of saving.

Since then, Shea socked away a little nest egg from recycling over her life.

“Some of the money, I’ve still never spent,” Shea said. “It’s kind of my emergency money.”

Fast forward all these years later and the 41-year-old has implemented a similar method, and then some, with Grace and Carter, who have taken to picking up bottles and cans the way most kids take to the beach.

They’ve collected for roughly four years, and each now has funded their own savings account. That’s not all. The pair also have funded their own eTrade accounts Shea set up for them, largely resourced by the work they put in picking up plastic, aluminum and glass and the money they get back from redeeming it. Shea selects the stocks for them, naturally, but the same rule applies, once the money’s deposited, it stays deposited.

“We kind of stared small and it’s been really fun because when they go to the store they’ll want to buy something, and I’ll say, ‘Well, that’s two days worth of cans, do you really want that?'” Shea said.

“Oh,” the kids will say and reevaluate their wants right there in the store aisle.

“It puts it in perspective,” Shea said. “Carter doesn’t understand money yet, necessarily, but when you tell her how much work it was going to cost her, it causes her to rethink things.”

But the most rewarding benefits of their routine is what they’ve learned besides dollars and cents: donating, cleaning up their community, and getting outside under the sun as a family, Shea said. When Grace hands her money over to the homeless man every week, he thanks her and calls her “auntie.”

“I like to give it away to people that I really like,” Grace said on why she likes recycling.

The Cochrans aren’t alone: A lot of people recycle on the Big Island.

According to the Hawai‘i Department of Health, which is responsible for tracking the numbers of the HI-5 program, 115 million items were redeemed at recycling centers across Hawai‘i County between July 2020 and June 2021.

Around 10 million items were turned in per month during that time, with aluminum items typically accounting for around half the monthly total. 

Still, 115 million recyclables represents only 20% of the statewide total recycled during that timespan – 602 million items. O‘ahu represented nearly 60% of that amount, but the Big Island’s total was good for second most per county in the state.

The rates paid by the redemption centers are determined by the state, which reviews its formula every few years. Right now, it pays $1.60 per pound for cans, $1.32 per pound for small plastic bottles and $1.20 for glass.

The recycling centers here, like Mr. K’s Recycling in Hilo, ship their collections to mainland companies who then use the items for their purposes.

The method behind Grace and Carter’s operation is similar to the one Shea learned under.

The girls’ father, Lee, builds homes and works on construction sites, similar to their grandpa, so Grace and Carter visit work areas, just the way Shea had. In fact, Shea’s dad still recycles to this day, so when the Cochrans visit, they go and collect together as a family, three generations across.

What’s the biggest difference between the two states? California seems to accept everything, while Hawai‘i is more picky: No wine bottles here, for example. Gatorade and Heineken bottles, meanwhile, are the most ubiquitous finds on the island while Sierra Nevada bottles reign supreme in Northern California.

But the practice is so much more than the wares, or savings or stock accounts that have come from it.

The Cochran girls genuinely get sad when they see people litter, and they always want to bring plastic bags to pick up bottles and cans when they go on walks or to the beach.

But it’s not to say the bounty from their hauls isn’t important. Quite the opposite. It helps make the practice all the more fun, 5 cents at a time.

Heck, the girls have been known to encourage Shea to jump out of the car when they’re waiting at a red light and have spied an errant can or two on the side of the road. Which Shea has done. What’s a good family tradition if it’s not a little bit crazy?

“It’s horrifying sometimes,” Shea said, laughing. “Even though I’ve done that for them just to make them happy.”

A breakdown by county of containers redeemed from July 2020 to June 2021. Also included are the number of containers sold and the state redemption rate for during that time. Graphic courtesy of the state’s Office of Solid Waste Management
Solid & Hazardous Waste Branch

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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